Women, Workers, and Art in May

The First of May narrates the alignment of the earth with the sun, the mid-point of the spring equinox and the summer solstice! The day when creativity is at its peek. The Celts referred to it as Beltane, one of the cross-quarter days. Others being Imbolc, February 2, Lughnasadh, August 1, and Samhain, October 31, all grounded in agriculture. Even their name for May is based in farming, Thrimilce an Anglo-Saxon word meaning the month for three-time-milking of April-fattened cows.

The Romans named this month after Maia. The oldest member of the Pleiades, the seven star sisters, Maia was also considered the “nursing mother.” For the Romans as well as for the Celts, this month was a celebration of Spring.

From Celebrating Spring to Celebrating Workers

In the US, some of the spring traditions of May 1 disappeared over the years. Washing ones face with dew was meant to beautify it. Considered licentious and pagan, the Puritans ended that. For the rest of the world, May 1 transitioned to the celebration of the new life of the worker, an eight-hour work day. It became Labor day. In the US, however, the fear of socialism and communism lead to the decision to celebrate Labor Day in September instead. The fear that the memory of the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in May would trigger unrest in a May celebration of Labor Day guided that choice.

Balmy Alley in Mission District

With that background, it seems fitting to prepare for May with art related to this month, in particular to the celebration of workers and the creativity supporting their work. So, I begin with a stroll down Balmy Alley in the Mission District, San Francisco. Some call it the “political theater for the masses”. The murals down each side of the street represent in form, content, and location, the celebration of creativity for all. From women artists to “women of resistance” this exhibition keeps growing.

“Balmy Alley: Women of the Resistance” by Knoxy SF is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “San Francisco – Mission District: Balmy Alley – Naya Bihana (A New Dawn)” by wallyg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

At Work: The Art of California Labor

Then, I read At Work: The Art of California Labor. It begins with a historic reminder, “On the morning of May 1. 1953, a congressional hearing convened in Washington to consider the destruction of murals recently completed by Anton Refregier for San Francisco’s Rincon annex Post Office.” The collection provides a timeline of the progression of the art of labor in California. Through the works of artists like Lucilenne Bloch, a close friend of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and screen printer Ester Hernández, this book clarifies the combined fear of unionized workers and immigrants.

Art of Labor and Power in Pakistan

And then, as always, I return to my childhood in Pakistan. In Pakistan, the country’s largest mural, “Saga of Labor” by Pakistani artist, Sadequain comes to mind. He painted it in 1967. And by the 1970s, when I became aware of the politics of my youth, the art of labor and power was not stationary. It was Truck Art. Trucks, buses, rickshaws were all decorated with the message of power to the worker and the disenfranchised.

Sadequain’s “Saga of Labour” (Ref)

Even today, messages about anti-racism, prompting girls’ education, and social change is represented on streets and trucks.

Diego Rivera’s Panamerican unity mural in San Francisco

Decades later, in California, when I started teaching English as a Second Language at Cañada College, the art of Californian labor triggered new interests. The college had a tradition of semester-long commitment to a college-wide discussion of one text, similar to the “One City, One Book” concept. Sponsored by the college library, this semester-long event entailed studying one book from different perspectives. Each department would choose a discipline-specific perspective and organize a lecture or a discussion open to the campus.

To continue that tradition, with a twist, one semester we decided to focus on an artist: the muralist, Diego Rivera. For that semester, a replica of his masterpiece mural, “Panamerican unity”, was on display in the main theater of the college. Students and faculty discussed this work from artistic, political, historical, and linguistic perspectives. The mural inspired us to make connections we had not made earlier.

Celebrating those who don’t have the luxury to create

Finding time to write and create is a luxury for some, a necessity for others. The question remains, how do we recognize those who don’t have time to create and document? Has the world changed since Tillie Olsen wrote about the suppression of those disadvantaged by gender, class, or race? And so, I share my thoughts with you to continue the focus on women, workers, and Art in May

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art


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